As another winter season approaches, it is worthwhile for property owners and businesses to plan ahead for the inevitable snow and ice storms which will blanket our area.  With each winter storm comes the potential for a person to slip and fall on ice or snow outside your or your insured’s business.  While the duty to prevent an injury occurring on premises owned or controlled by a business is well known, the legal responsibility for snow and ice conditions on public sidewalks under Connecticut law is a bit murkier. In order to shed some light on the duty of a property owner or tenant, and discuss ways to minimize the adverse consequences of an accident, the following briefly reviews the potential liability businesses may face for accidents occurring due to snow and ice conditions on a public sidewalk abutting their property.

Connecticut Sidewalk Law

Generally, an abutting landowner is under no duty to keep public sidewalks in front of his or her property in a reasonably safe condition. Rather, the municipalities have the duty to maintain public sidewalks, and, under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 13a-149, they are liable for damages caused by a breach of that duty.

Section 13a-149 provides, inter alia:

Any person injured in person or property by means of a defective road [The term “road” as used in the statute includes sidewalksor bridge may recover damages from the party bound to keep it in repair. . . . No action for any such injury shall be maintained against any town, city, corporation or borough, unless written notice of such injury and a general description of the same, and of the cause thereof and of the time and place of its occurrence, shall, within ninety days thereafter be given to a selectman or the clerk of such town, or to the clerk of such city or borough, or to the secretary or treasurer of such corporation.

Although the responsibility to maintain public sidewalks is generally the responsibility of the municipalities, Connecticut courts recognize two exceptions to the general rule.  The first exception is where a statute or ordinance shifts the duty to keep the sidewalk in a safe condition to the abutting landowner and provides that the abutting landowner will be liable for injuries caused by his or her failure to do so.  The second exception applies where the unsafe condition of a public sidewalk was created by the abutting landowner’s positive acts.  In cases involving snow and ice conditions, the first exception to the general rule often applies.

Duty of Private Landowners or Tenants

Connecticut has enacted legislation specifically permitting municipalities to adopt ordinances requiring owners, or those in possession of property (i.e. tenants), to remove snow and ice from sidewalks abutting the property and transferring liability for damages associated with snow and ice on sidewalks to the property owners or tenants.  Connecticut General Statutes § 7-163a provides, in pertinent part:

(a) Any [municipality] may, by ordinance, adopt the provisions of this section.

(b) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 13a-149 or any other general statute or special act, such [municipality] shall not be liable to any person injured in person or property caused by the presence of ice or snow on a public sidewalk unless such municipality is the owner or person in possession and control of land abutting such sidewalk, . . .  provided such municipality shall be liable for its affirmative acts with respect to such sidewalk.

(c) (1) The owner or person in possession and control of land abutting a public sidewalk shall have the same duty of care with respect to the presence of ice or snow on such sidewalk toward the portion of the sidewalk abutting his property as the municipality had prior to the effective date of any ordinance adopted pursuant to the provisions of this section and shall be liable to persons injured in person or property where a breach of said duty is the proximate cause of said injury.

Most municipalities in Connecticut have enacted ordinances adopting the provisions of Connecticut General Statutes § 7-163a.  In cities and towns where such ordinances are enacted, a property owner or tenant can be held liable for not sufficiently clearing snow and ice from an abutting sidewalk within a reasonable time.

The duty of an abutting landowner in those municipalities which have adopted section 7-163a is to use reasonable care to keep the sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition from snow and ice.  In order to recover for injuries sustained in a slip and fall on a sidewalk due to the presence of snow and ice, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant had either actual or constructive notice of the defective condition. Constructive notice is found when the snow and ice condition was present for a sufficient length of time, so that the defendant should have discovered it using reasonable care to inspect the sidewalk.  Notably, the duty to use reasonable care takes into account the variety of conditions and circumstances that are created by the rigors of winter; thus, the responsible party may await the end of a storm and a reasonable time thereafter before removing ice and snow from the sidewalk.  In defending against a claim of constructive notice, therefore, establishing when the specific icy condition was created is essential.  A meteorological report may be useful to establish a recent fluctuation in temperature to show that the condition was sudden and that there was no reasonable time to discover it.

Further, an injured plaintiff must prove that after having notice of the claimed defect, and having had a reasonable opportunity to remedy the defect, the defendant failed to do so.  In order to show that he or she acted reasonably, it is often important for a defendant to develop a sound justification for not taking immediate action to remedy the complained of condition, such as having to allocate available manpower to remedy other, more hazardous, conditions.

Finally, the plaintiff must also prove that the snow and ice condition was the only substantial factor causing the accident.  If the accident occurred because plaintiff was not using reasonable care; that is, the degree of care that a reasonably prudent person would have used to avoid injury, the abutting landowner will not be liable for the accident.  Often, a person will slip on ice or snow because they did not see it or because they were wearing inappropriate footwear for the winter conditions.  When defending against a slip and fall claim, it is prudent to explore all the possible ways the plaintiff’s own conduct contributed to the incident.

In order to determine the extent of your obligations to remove snow and ice from an abutting public sidewalk, a review of the local town or city ordinances is necessary.  To determine the applicability of Connecticut General Statutes § 7-163a in your area, and to discuss procedures that you can implement to minimize liability from accidents caused by snow and ice conditions, please contact Christopher Renzulli ([email protected]).